ON THE RELATIVELY warm Sunday morning of October 10, a group of hard-core cinephiles assembled on Seventh Street in Manhattan to extend the epic journey of Ken Jacobs’s six hour–plus magnum opus Star Spangled to Death (1956–60/2003–2004). Organized by UnionDocs, which three weeks earlier had inaugurated its fall 2010 series with Star Spangled, the gathering was accompanied by a walking tour, led by Jacobs, through various East Village sites that provided the memorable locations for his film, itself an experimental odyssey incorporating found-footage highlights and detritus of American culture (Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, surreal archaic animated cartoons), flashes of politically charged text, and footage from the late 1950s, when Jacobs shot puckish avant-garde icon Jack Smith and surly ragamuffin Jerry Sims in loose scenes of play and prank.
The tour began at Cooper Union, where in the days of the Third Avenue El that had shrouded Bowery’s notorious skid row—“a city within a city,” as Jacobs called it—Smith confounded passersby with the flamboyant, impromptu street theater Jacobs captured with his camera. In the particular scene from Star Spangled to Death that takes place at Cooper, Smith dons a garbage costume that gives him the appearance of—in the words of another icon of ’50s New York bohemia, Bob Dylan—“a junkyard angel,” a persona called The Spirit Not of Life But of Living; the getup allows him to “free the slaves,” the captives being a couple of shoeshine boys who happen to wander into the frame. In showing the scene to the group on a portable DVD player, Jacobs explained how Smith would so “dazzle” the unsuspecting citizens he brought into his fantasy worlds that he rarely incurred resistance or objection. Which isn’t to say that Smith’s role as an unknown, underground star in an inhospitable postwar milieu was easy. Jacobs recalled, though couldn’t locate, a Catholic church where Smith had climbed the steps to offer a Valentine’s Day candy heart (presumably to the church itself), only to be reprimanded by a perplexed and likely offended police officer. He was let off with a warning.
Other run-ins with the law were not without more serious incident. On Saint Marks Place, Jacobs and his wife, Flo, recalled the bust that occurred at the Saint Marks Theater on the occasion of the premiere of Smith’s notorious Flaming Creatures (1963). Jacobs was serving as the manager at the time, and Flo the ticket-taker; both landed in the slammer overnight after the film was seized on charges of pornography, the first event in a case that would eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court. A lengthy detour had Jacobs explaining the parameters of censorship prior to the MPAA film-rating system and the geographic history of the East Village art scene in the ’50s and ’60s (he had some particularly illuminating opinions on the difference between Beats and hipsters—noting that Kerouac was more sincere than the young, opportunistic Cassavetes), but when asked if he missed the good ol’ days of authentic cinematic rebellion against a repressive culture, Jacobs hedged. Smith, who died in 1989, would have enjoyed the new, commercialized bohemia of Saint Marks Place, Jacobs said. The old Saint Marks was depressingly drab (evidence of its bleakness was later shown in a Star Spangled vignette of Smith performing in front of the long-gone Second Avenue Griddle); the new Saint Marks fully allows the freaks to let their flags fly.
Left: Joseph W. Sarno, Confessions of a Young American Housewife, 1974, color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Production still. Anna, Eddie, Carole, and Pete (Chris Jordan, David Hausman, Rebecca Brooke, and Eric Edwards). Right: Joseph W. Sarno, Moonlighting Wives, 1966, color film in 35 mm, 86 minutes. Production still. Mrs. Joan Rand and Al Jordan (Tammy Latour and John Aristedes).
“THE HAPPY ENDING is a Hollywood fallacy that I’m not interested in; I like to leave my characters with something to think about, with things they need to resolve.” Strange words coming from a director of what would come to be known as sexploitation films, but, though as prolific as any grind-house purveyor, Joseph W. Sarno was after something more than (just) cheap thrills. He made his first feature, Nude in Charcoal, in 1961, some years after serving in World War II and later chancing into putting together industrial flicks. Throughout the 1960s he directed a number of sometimes exquisitely shot, anxiety-tweaking, exuberantly scored films. Sarno could make a movie like The Bed and How to Make It! (1966), about an exiled young woman run amok in her aunt’s motel, feel ineffably dirty without getting explicit (unless you count the seductively syncopated stripped-down drum-thump that served as a sound track).
Now receiving a weekend tribute at Anthology, the late Brooklyn-born director (who died in April at the must-be-doing-something-right age of eighty-nine) did not resist displays of flesh, and indeed, he survived eras of change when the meaning of exposure in skin flicks got more literal-minded (on through the ’80s video boom). But Moonlighting Wives (1966), for all the semidreamlike stiltedness of the dialogue and pinup color scheme, dwells on an entrepreneurial woman’s problems of fulfillment in business and love—even if the business, in what seems like an American epidemic at the time, was pimping out acquaintances. (“I sell a service. A . . . stenographic service.”) Sarno would attribute his female focus (psychological and sexual) to his mother, a Jewish labor organizer who believed in “powerful women” (and married an Italian onetime bootlegger).
Sarno sometimes shot dialogue scenes that rivaled Welles in depth of field and compactness of composition, in what he called “fore-aft shots”: Whether in a bedroom or kitchen, the two actors are positioned to face the camera as they leer or spar or speak their insinuating minds. Though the “fore-afts” are often cited to demonstrate Sarno’s filmmaking bona fides, the technique wasn’t just a gesture to avoid reaction-shot monotony—there’s a genuine erotic charge to witnessing provocation and reaction at the same time, along with the voyeuristic dramatic irony to the fiction of neither facing the other. It’s one of several examples of Sarno’s forging ahead rather than just working around—even if it did take him until 1974 (Confessions of a Young American Housewife) to name a sex-mad mother character Mrs. Robinson.
The Joseph Sarno retrospective runs October 29–31 at Anthology Film Archives. For more details, click here.
Kaneto Shindô, Kuroneko, 1968, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Left: Shige (Kiwako Taichi). Right: Gintoki and Yone (Kichiemon Nakamura and Nobuko Otowa).
JAPANESE CINEMA possesses a rich history of films about insanity, barbarism, and ghosts: Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (1926), Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), among the most prominent. A surprising entry to add to the list is Kaneto Shindô’s Kuroneko (Black Cat), an expressionistic fable of civil war–torn twelfth-century Japan and its decadent samurai class. By 1968, the year of the film’s release, Shindô had built his reputation on sober, realistic studies of social issues (Children of Hiroshima ), primitive survival (The Naked Island ), and human degradation (The Hole ). But though Kuroneko is a stylistic anomaly within Shindô’s career, it is of a piece with his other work. The film is as much a dead-serious depiction of the corruption of power and the nihilistic seduction of death as it is of the spirit world, despite or perhaps because of its stylized treatment.
Much of the film’s eeriness comes from its unconventional sound design. After the opening credits, the first establishing shot shows from above a group of marauding samurai edging out of a forest, creeping up toward an isolated rural hut. All the accompanying noises—the glug-glugging of gulped water as the hungry warriors quench their thirst at a nearby stream, the abrasive rhythmic chirp of unseen crickets—create an ominous chorus. After a set of grotesque close-ups of leering samurai confronting a helpless young woman, Shige (Kiwako Taichi), and her mother-in-law Yone (Nobuko Otowa), the plot is set in motion: a gang rape, a torched hut, and the possible transference of souls to a black cat. The cat accompanies the nighttime appearance in the middle of the forest of the succubi as they lure samurai to their doom.
Like so many ghost stories across so many cultures, Kuroneko acts as a cautionary tale about human interaction on the astral plane. Sent to end the carnage these spirits wreak on the living, brave warrior Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) discovers they are the loved ones he had left behind upon going to war. He is unable to resist Shige but soon loses her after a weeklong erotic reunion—the bargain made with the “god of evil” prevents Shige from staying on earth once she has made contact with her beloved. The film can be broken up into two halves: the first a collection of Shige and Yone’s encounters with uncouth and amoral samurai—a revenge of the peasant class on the warrior class—the second a Shakespeare tragedy of impossible unification of the human and undead and the familial bonds that are torn asunder in the attempt to reverse the natural order. Throughout, Shindô employs a dizzying array of flamboyant techniques: moving sets, jump cuts, slo-mo trancelike dances and acrobatics, sharp chiaroscuro lighting, sheets of fog, theatrical spotlights. These flourishes may be influenced by Noh theater, but their execution is very much modern. One is reminded of German Expressionism, while the film’s explicit Freudianism and violent class-consciousness evoke the political and critical currents of its turbulent era.
Kuroneko plays October 22–28 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
Eugčne Green, The Portuguese Nun, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 127 minutes. Julie de Hauranne, Vasco, and Carloto Cotta (Leonor Baldaque, Francisco Mozos, and D. Sebastiăo).
RARELY HAS A MOVIE opened with the serene, picturesque tranquility that flows through the first minutes of The Portuguese Nun’s (2009): a slow and sumptuous 180-degree scan of the Lisbon skyline, shot from the hills above, accompanied by only the sounds of wind and water. It’s a gorgeous but strangely detached beginning to director Eugčne Green’s cinematic daydream—an ideal encapsulation of his peculiar filmmaking method—designed to jolt the viewer out of the role of passive observer through characters who move awkwardly about the city, who speak without affect or inflection, and who occasionally gaze directly at the camera when offering philosophical asides about the human condition. Combining these unlikely elements, Green creates movies that are ridiculous yet somehow revelatory. Where some will see slow-moving tedium, others will be alerted to the potency of the film’s words and themes, and the nearly palpable mise-en-scčne; much like Kubrick, Green is less interested in characters than in the ideas and ideals they embody.
His thesis concerns the ways in which travelers can be spiritually awakened, even transformed, by fleeting chance encounters and undiscovered countries. (The same theme could apply to Green himself, who abandoned his regular French locales to mold this love poem to the ethereal hub of Portugal.) The protagonist Julie (Leonor Baldaque) is a French actress who travels to Lisbon for the first time as the star of a film shoot. She plays a nun. But as she imbibes the wonders, her interest in the movie wanes. Julie’s nightly conversations with her director (Green) quickly veer from acting critiques to philosophical digressions. As she strolls through town, befriending an array of locals—from a lonely, suicidal aristocrat (Diogo Dória) and an orphaned boy, to a dashing young flirter—she delves into a place of introspection, her “conversations” more closely resembling meditations on life and love. When she stumbles upon a real nun (Ana Moreira) at a nearby church who spends every evening lost in prayer, Julie’s quest to “find her part” becomes something much more profound.
Green’s style can be off-putting to mainstream audiences, as he rigidly divides the story into chapters, often diverting from the central plot, if only to gaze at the city below or to bask in a mournful fado performance at a nearby café. The concept of momentum doesn’t quite apply here. Baldaque, Green, and Dória deliver their lines so statically that emotional sincerity is all but abandoned, as the director instead concentrates our attention on the meaning of his script and the staging of the conversation. But by ignoring these surface pleasures, Green emphasizes instead the deeper questions of Julie’s midnight musings, and the freedom afforded by a new city and fresh perspective. She is a beacon of empathy, always curious and easily moved, and while there is considerable silence in The Portuguese Nun, it’s a deafening silence, filled with both hesitation and hope.
The Portuguese Nun runs October 22–28 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.
Sasha Waters Freyer, Chekhov for Children, 2010, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 74 minutes.
IN THE LATE 1970s, fifth- and sixth-graders at P.S. 75 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side participated in a full-length production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which played for one night in 1979 “on Broadway”—albeit pretty far from the theater district—at Symphony Space at Ninety-fifth Street. With a cast and crew made up entirely of ten- to twelve-year-olds, the play was directed by writer Phillip Lopate, who was a member of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative at P.S. 75 and whose moving and quietly provocative essay “Chekhov for Children” inspired documentary filmmaker Sasha Waters Freyer to make a movie based on her experience of the production—for which, at age ten, she served as assistant director. Besides operating as a memory piece and an update on the lives of Lopate and the actors, the documentary challenges current standardized, exam-oriented public school education. It also deserves to be in the collection of any serious performing arts library. Freyer uses brief clips from video recordings of British productions of Vanya, including Stuart Burge’s, featuring Laurence Olivier as Astrov and Michael Redgrave as Vanya, and by comparison the actors in P.S. 75’s production, despite a tendency to saw the air with their hands and to sometimes singsong their words, are no less truthful and urgent in their depictions of the characters than the great actors.
Lopate reflects on the impulse behind the production, which he undertook despite being cautioned that preteens might be disturbed by an immersion in the middle-aged regret that defines Chekhov’s characters and the tendency of some of them to throw themselves into hopeless love affairs as a distraction from their pain. As we watch the video recording of the young actors onstage, we see that they have found, against all expectations, parallels in their own experience for the characters’ dilemmas. As part of P.S. 75’s unorthodox arts education, students used Super 8 and early video rigs to make on-the-street documentaries and short fictions, and to record some of the rehearsals for Uncle Vanya. The Symphony Space performance was videotaped by a member of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and although the technology employed was crude, the excerpts that Freyer has selected for Chekhov for Children are rich with life—the life of the play, of the cast, and of New York as it was during the arts adventure of the ’70s.
Chekhov for Children screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on October 21. For more details, click here.
Michael Mann, Thief, 1981, still from a color film in 35 mm, 122 minutes. Frank (James Caan).
MICHAEL MANN’S crime-film oeuvre, guided by codes of masculinity and professionalism, begins with James Caan confidently heaving an electric drill against the front of a safe, which the whirring bit enters in mesmerizing close-up. In the shots leading up to the break-in, Thief (1981) lays down the notes for Mann’s many cool nocturnes to come—the warm, precise globes of glowing titanium-white street lamps and red taillights, streets and other surfaces turned gleamily reflective (here shot by Donald Thorin), evenly cruising motion and harbor-gazing stillness, both seductive and self-contained. And before the pastel-clad boom-time Miami of Crockett and Tubbs, there came Caan’s Frank, “Joe the boss of my body,” straight-shooting Chicago safecracker with a used-car lot as a front.
Unlike other selections in Film Forum’s “Heist” series, the failed escape in Thief comes not after a botched job or double cross but when Frank compromises his own independence. Accustomed to running the show and going home with the proceeds, he enters the employ of a crime boss, Leo (Robert Prosky). He hardheadedly believes he really can buck an entire system of mob-family ties and corrupt cops (who beat him in a room painted the same institutional green as those he laments to an adoption official from his “state-raised” days). But Frank is not a fatalistic solitary wanderer held over from the 1970s—when, in fact, the character was still in jail, like the beloved mentor he visits there, played by Willie Nelson. His desired out is to start a family (with Tuesday Weld), but exposing this feeling, then reverting to prison-taught nihilism, is what does him in.
Having written a bracing, tight script from a burglar’s memoir, Mann shoots in rough neighborhoods he remembers from his childhood, when his uncle used to take him on architectural tours. Fatherhood is in trouble in Thief: Frank seeking a dad in Nelson’s master thief, getting brutal godfather Leo, wanting his own son at any cost. But, stating his facts to whoever-the-fuck with contractionless enunciation, Caan puts across a no-nonsense craftsman hero for the early ’80s (one who Leo mockingly suggests should join a labor union). The much-maligned Tangerine Dream synthesizer score is like sheets of factory-cut metal, brutally beautiful and hard, suited to the industrial imagery of the drills. The break-in tricks come from safecrackers, aka “technical advisors”; actual cops (like then detective Dennis Farina) play crooks, and vice versa; the guns are handpicked; and, above all, the urgency of making a go of life before time runs out feels real.
Thief plays on October 14 in “The Heist” series at Film Forum in New York, which runs October 1–21. For more details, click here.
SOMETHING LIKE THE CRISPIN GLOVER of his era, the eccentric, explosive character actor Timothy Carey lent his genuinely off-kilter presence to films as varied as the swampsploitation C-movie Poor White Trash (1957), Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957), and John Cassavetes’s Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Along the way, he sprayed beer in Brando’s face in The Wild One (1953) (Brando, as director of One-Eyed Jacks , later paid Carey back by stabbing him with a pen), was attacked by Elia Kazan on the set of East of Eden (1955), parodied his own menacing, maniacal image in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and the Monkees’s Head (1968), and turned down offers to act in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part 2 (1974).
The Brooklyn-born Carey was physically imposing—a strapping 6’4”—making him ideal for roles as brutish heavies, and he resembled a love child of Nicolas Cage and John Turturro. His penchant for improvisation—bizarre dancing, unscripted outbursts, mumbled nonsense—often got him into trouble with directors and other actors, but made lifelong fans of Jack Nicholson (who wrote Head and likely borrowed elements of Carey’s persona for his performance in The Shining ); Cassavetes (who claimed Carey had the “brilliance of Eisenstein”); and Quentin Tarantino, who considered Carey for the role of crime boss Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs (1992).
For mondo video devotees, Carey sealed his immortality with the self-written/produced/directed oddity The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), which can be characterized as Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) as directed by Ed Wood Jr. The film, which has some of the same proto–John Waters tackiness of The Honeymoon Killers (1970), tells the tale of a bored insurance salesman who becomes an early Elvis-style rockabilly sensation. Noting the frenzy he inspires in his audiences, he begins calling himself “God,” founds a religious cult, and runs for President. Carey and his singularly untalented “band” played their own detuned rock ‘n’ roll in the concert scenes, but the film was scored by a young, pre–Mothers of Invention Frank Zappa. Narrated by the devil and featuring the real God at the climax, Sinner was admired by Elvis himself (who asked Carey for a print) and remains one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll films.
Carey was equally enraptured by flatulence and Dalí, and both influences are evident in the unfinished pilot of his proposed TV series Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena, which he began shooting in 1968 and which, along with many of the aforementioned films, will get a rare screening at Anthology Film Archives’s Carey retrospective. Concerning an idiot man-child named Tweet Twig (Carey) who works for the “Don’t Drop a Stitch” knitting club (old ladies, some played by men in drag) and seeks to rescue every stray animal he can find, this truly surreal labor of love was partially funded by Cassavetes and was sporadically worked on through 1982. Unsurprisingly, it got nowhere with network executives, but probably resides in the bootleg VHS collections of Waters, David Lynch, and Harmony Korine.
The saying, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” generally applied to things, perfectly sums up Tim Carey. Joaquin Phoenix merely wishes he were this weird.
“Agog: The World of Timothy Carey” runs October 15–25 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
SPANISH FILMMAKER SEGUNDO DE CHOMÓN began working in the medium less than half a decade after its invention, first as a renowned colorist in the days of labor-intensive frame-by-frame tinting, then as a pioneering special-effects designer. His career unfolded during the historical phase scholar Tom Gunning has dubbed the “cinema of attractions”—before narrative took hold as the dominant mode, when fairground-style spectacle and legerdemain remained the eye-baffling norm. One of Chomón’s earliest films, The King of Dollars (1905), makes the link to stage magic clear. It shows a disembodied hand performing coin tricks, enhanced by simple editing techniques that would have still been unfamiliar to audiences. Later works recall the baroque theatricality of his contemporary George Méličs (whose films he hand-colored), with a somewhat more sinister edge to their elaborate fantasy. In one of Chomón’s best-known titles, The Red Spectre (1907), a leering Satanic magician traps women inside tiny glass bottles while cavorting in his rouge-tinted subterranean lair. In Bob’s Electric Theater (1909), a boy shares a miniature toy stage with his friends, whereupon it plays host to stop-motion animated dolls who skewer one another with swords and furiously kick-box. A less violent variation on this theme appears in The Electric Hotel (1908), in which a bellhop employs a novel device that causes luggage to fly upstairs, then unpack on its own. These last two proto-Surrealist items serve as reminders of how much the mechanism of cinema itself remained a source of wonder for Chomón, and the use of “electric” parallels the way “electronic” would be employed in the 1960s—or, indeed, “digital” today—as a slippery marker of seductively ineffable technological newness. Though populated with dancing sorcerers, gypsy alchemists, and ghostly apparitions, Chomón’s work now feels ironically materialist, capturing the weird essence of cinema in its primordial form: an industrial-era machine, rigged out of gears and shutters, incandescent bulbs and chemical photography, that nonetheless creates lifelike phantoms from a projected beam of moving shadows.
A selection of films by Segundo de Chomón will be shown at a special screening hosted by the New York Film Festival on Sunday, October 10, at 12:30 PM. A retrospective of Chomón’s work will appear at Anthology Film Archives in New York October 29–31.
TWO NEW FILMS bookending the life of John Lennon, who would have turned seventy on October 9, elide his momentous trajectory through the 1960s. Although Nowhere Boy (2009), a fictional movie directed by the artist Sam Taylor-Wood, shows how Lennon (Aaron Johnson) met Paul McCartney and George Harrison and brings him to the eve of their band’s departure for Hamburg, the Beatles aren’t mentioned by name. The film nods ironically to the Liverpool glory years in a scene in which drunken young John is turned away from the Cavern Club, but it is concerned with something more primal than creativity and fame: how Lennon’s troubled mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), fought a battle of wills for emotional possession of her son against her stable older sister, his widowed Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas).
The emotional upheavals Nowhere Boy depicts see the emergence of the cruel and self-destructive side of Lennon’s personality—chickens that came home to roost in his thirties, according to LENNONYC (2010), which was made by Michael Epstein for PBS’s American Masters series. This documentary focuses on the ex-Beatle’s Manhattan years—and his eighteen-month “lost weekend” in Los Angeles—when he fought not only his personal demons but the FBI’s attempt to have him deported for his antiwar activism, before he settled into a new groove as a mellowed musician and devoted family man. Together the movies compellingly weave an intertextual web, the central strand of which is Lennon’s lifelong need for a mother or mother substitute.
Nowhere Boy begins auspiciously, marrying the first clanging chord of 1965’s “Help!” with a shot of the schoolboy Lennon cavorting around Liverpool’s colonnaded Saint George’s Hall. Johnson adequately captures his coltishness, irreverence—later boorishness—and vulnerability, if not the viperish wit that Ian Hart brought to the young Lennon in The Hours and Times (1991) and Backbeat (1994). Flashbacks reveal that Mimi and her husband adopted five-year-old John when Julia and his father, Alfred, asked the boy the impossible on their separation—to choose between them. Seeking out Julia, when he’s seventeen, John is all but seduced by her: Sometimes clad in a red coat that screams “scarlet woman,” she flirts outrageously with him, calls him her “dream,” tells him that rock ’n’ roll means “sex,” and installs him in the home she shares with her lover and younger daughters. Genteel Mimi fights to keep him, upping the ante when she buys the neophyte rocker an expensive guitar for his birthday. Dreadful scenes between the sisters bring him close to the breaking point; then comes rapprochement, and tragedy. There’s time amid these vicissitudes for John and a teddy girl to fornicate in a park, but the fascination here is with John not as a leader of men or as a Casanova but as a boy at the mercy of well-meaning but needy mothers.
Given Lennon’s wayward streak, Nowhere Boy is oddly safe and functional. Taylor-Wood departs from formalism only in the sequence in which John, taught banjo chords by the musical Julia, strums thoughtfully as her family rushes around him at almost time-lapse speed. Though a doc, LENNONYC is more style-conscious, deploying some fancy curlicued graphics and images of the newspaper packaging of the Some Time in New York City album morphing into video. Driven by interviews with associates, including Elton John and David Geffen, and featuring wonderful footage of the Lennons wandering shyly in Central Park, it is otherwise solid, thorough, and mercifully nonhagiographic. Ono, who supported the film’s production, is interviewed, but so is May Pang, whom Ono enlisted as Lennon’s paramour when Ono separated from him after he humiliated her by sleeping with another woman at a party. Dependent on Ono, Lennon drank heavily during his LA exile and reunited with her in New York in early 1975. The birth of their son Sean later that year led to his five-year holiday from the music business, during which he reinvented himself as hands-on father (in a way he never was to Julian Lennon during Beatlemania), house husband, and baker of bread. In 1980, he recorded the Double Fantasy album and was murdered three weeks after its release. (The film decorously refuses to name his killer, Mark Chapman, but the pall of that crime hangs heavily over it.)
Listening to the songs on Double Fantasy—which include “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Woman,” “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” and “Dear Yoko”—it’s hard to reconcile them with such randy numbers as “Twist and Shout” and “Please Please Me”; similarly, it’s hard to reconcile the confused rebel of Nowhere Boy with the contented forty-year-old Lennon at the end of LENNONYC. Though Christopher Eccleston played John from 1967 to 1971 in this year’s British TV drama Lennon Naked, what happened in between Taylor-Wood’s and Epstein’s films—four thousand days in the life—is an intimate epic as yet unattempted.
The US theatrical premiere run of Nowhere Boy begins Thursday, October 8, at Film Forum in New York. LENNONYC was screened during the 2010 New York Film Festival and premieres nationally on PBS on Monday, November 22, at 9 PM.
Sarah Morris, Points on a Line, 2010, stills from a color film in HD, 35 minutes 48 seconds.
POINTS ON A LINE, the latest film by artist Sarah Morris, takes as its central focus two architectural subjects on the verge of critical exhaustion. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, and Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, have, both together and separately, been exposed to such thoroughly repetitive visual and textual analysis that it is surprising to find the two icons called on to be reconsidered anew. Morris’s cinematic portrait of these architectural landmarks, designed and constructed roughly within the same period of time by the German mentor and his American disciple, moves well beyond the historical dispute over originality and influence, as well as the fascination with glass as a material—reflective and transparent—caught in the folds of perception. Instead, Points on a Line is filmed with such visual precision and edited with such rhythm that the merger between history and mythology becomes evident as a defining characteristic of architecture.
Points on a Line begins in Connecticut at the Glass House, ends in Illinois at the Farnsworth House, and makes a series of important detours along the way. Mies’s and Johnson’s respective personas and architectural practices intersect in New York—the film’s midpoint—at the Seagram Building, Mies’s whiskey-colored skyscraper where Johnson was enlisted to design the Four Seasons restaurant and bar. Scenes of power lunches and the service industry that keeps business running as usual comingle in Johnson’s interior designs. The images provide a glimpse into how the Four Seasons at the Seagram Building has been used as a prominent site for the cultivation of corporate lifestyles since the years when Johnson was its most frequent visitor. The interpersonal relationship between Mies and Johnson is implied here; their lingering presence is merely suggested as Morris’s camera opts, instead, to fixate on the flow of the building’s contemporary life.
Similarly, the specific architectural details of the Farnsworth House and the Glass House are cast in relatively minor roles: Daily maintenance and the surrounding environs at both locations occupy much of Morris’s attention. While the film’s emphasis on nature might help to underscore Mies’s and Johnson’s differing opinions on the relationship of architecture to landscape, Points on a Line ultimately upends the possibility of any singular understanding of either structure or architect.
Sarah Morris’s Points on a Line debuted in Chicago at the Arts Club on September 16 and will have its first New York screening on October 6 at Sotheby’s, as part of the Modern Views Project to benefit Farnsworth House and the Glass House.
IN THE QUASI DOCUMENTARY S&Man (2006), J. T. Petty—director of independent and straight-to-video horror films such as Soft for Digging (2001) and Mimic: Sentinel (2003)—studies the psychological underpinnings of his chosen genre from within. Rather than charting the trends and evolutions of horror throughout cinematic history, Petty focuses on the most extreme purveyors of contemporary underground fetish horror: crude, bargain-basement productions that aim for ever greater realism while catering directly (sometimes via fan requests) to the bloodlust of their cultish audience.
Petty includes “what makes ’em tick?” interviews with and behind-the-scenes footage from films by Fred Vogel, whose Toe Tag Pictures feature family members and on-command vomiting; frequently nude scream queen Debbie D., whose pursuit of crossover success seems unlikely; and director Bill Zebub, crucifixion-obsessed mastermind behind such titles as Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist (2004). Explaining the appeal of the voyeuristic, sadistic, and masochistic desires aroused by horror are a sexologist and forensic psychiatrist husband-wife team, as well as Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992) author Carol J. Clover. Anyone with a passing familiarity with issues of death as spectacle, viewer empathy, and desensitized violence will come away from the skim-the-surface S&Man (pronounced “Sandman”) utterly unenlightened; anyone faintly inquisitive about the mechanics of hard-core “torture porn” will become quickly uninterested in them. At one point a lingerie-clad model yawns while Zebub drunkenly applies fake welts to her back. Petty’s tedious attention to every banality stated or enacted by his actually very dull subjects makes her boredom contagious.
The only thing going for S&Man is Petty’s investigation into whether suspiciously mild-mannered filmmaker Eric Rost has, in trying to up the horror ante, crossed the line between realism and snuff. A tip-off, however, is the title of Rost’s stalker cam series: S&Man. Yes, this thread of the film is mockumentary, Rost being played by an actor (as revealed in the end credits), and his increasingly creepy movies implicate us in our own morbid curiosity. But to achieve such an effect the film itself should be disturbingly fascinating, a quality developed to a much greater degree in another recent po-mo stunt, I’m Still Here, despite its absence of throat slittings.
S&Man plays October 1–7 at reRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn. For more details, click here.